Three things you should know about Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau
Three things you should know about Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau

The Information Lab Ireland is the leading provider of Tableau and Alteryx training in Ireland. This week we examine the simple difference between Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau and how Tableau helps you with both.

What is Discrete Data versus Continuous Data?

Discrete data and continuous data are mathematical terms used to describe differing forms of data. Some data can only be discrete, some can only be continuous and of course there is data that can be both.

Discrete means individually separate and distinct while continuous means you are forming an unbroken whole, without interruption. 

In terms of Tableau this means that Discrete data will generate rows and columns while continuous data generates axes.

The DB – CG Rule

Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau

As always, Tableau wants to help the user as much as it possibly can by making life visually easier. The DB – CG rule is very simple – Discrete data is coloured Blue while Continuous Data is coloured Green. 

This makes sure you know at all times what kind of data – Discrete or Continuous – you are using and the limits or possiblities of what you can do with same.

Examples of continuous and discrete fields used in a view

In the example below, because the Shipping Date field is set to Continuous, it creates a horizontal axis along the bottom of the view. The green background and the axis help you to see that it’s a continuous field. If you look in the bottom left column you can see Tableau has created one row and one column.

Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau

In the example further down the page, the Shipping Date field has been set to Discrete. It creates horizontal headers instead of an axis. The blue background and the horizontal headers help you to see that it’s discrete. If you look in the bottom left corner you will see there is one Row and seventeen Columns created.

Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau

Shipping Date (and most dates) can be both Discrete or Continuous. The dropdown menu from the pill (field) gives us the option to choose which one we want.

Discrete versus Continuous Data in TableauObviously if we decide to use Shipping Date as a Continuous Dimension it will only allow us to use Year because the flow of data continues over an uninterrupted course of time and allows us to see the course of change over time. This means that we can’t examine the sub divisions – quarters, months, weeks, days in this view because they would break the continuity.

If we want to split years, by quarters, months, weeks or days this will require switching to Shipping Date as Discrete (boxed off if you want to look at it another way with a start and an end or indeed several starts and ends).

In the final example we show you here, we have introduced Category to the Columns Shelf. This can only be Discrete as it is finite and clearly defined. If we look at its dropdown menu from the pill (field) we will see there is no option to change to Continuous because it is not possible.

Discrete versus Continuous Data in Tableau

Who/What is…?
The Information Lab Ireland

The Information Lab (“TIL”) is a Gold resale partner of Tableau and Alteryx and offers related consulting and training across seven territories in Europe. TIL has offices in Ireland, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Clients include Coca-Cola, Close Bros Bank, PepsiCo, Deloitte, UBS, Solar Turbines & Boston Consulting Group. The Information Lab has worked with Close Brothers Bank to support their use of Alteryx for compliance with IFRS 9.

The Information Lab Ireland is at the forefront of creating a data-driven culture in Ireland. As part of its vision, The Information Lab Ireland regularly hosts free events throughout the country to show how being data-driven can improve decision making and lead to a better understanding of the world around us.

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